I was in Chapters the other day and bought a copy of Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. It is a special two-in-one anniversary edition, which also features another of his works, Home Tonight. While not yet through the book in its entirety, I am having a hard time putting it down, which in my way of thinking, speaks volumes for the quality of a book. It is rich with insight and application, which for Nouwen began with a chance encounter with a copy of Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son.
I guess I’ve always related to the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), often identifying myself with the younger of the two brothers in Jesus’ parable. No doubt you recall the story, of how a father had two sons, and the younger of them goes to his father and asks for his share of the inheritance, and then promptly takes off to a far country where he squanders everything in a wild lifestyle, eventually becoming destitute. After a season of hiring himself out to feed someone’s pigs, who the parable tells us ate better than the son did, he comes to his senses and returns home, apologetic script for dad in hand, and throws himself at the mercy of his father, not really expecting to be accepted as a son anymore, but hoping that perhaps he might just maybe be accepted as a hired servant, or even as a slave.
But for there to be a “Return,” there had to first be a “Leaving.”
Now when I said that I had often identified myself as the prodigal, I meant that only insofar as I was identifying with leaving home at a young age, a little ruff around the edges with a questionable lifestyle, a sixteen year old with forty years of life experience (or so I thought and acted), full of attitude and thinking the world owed me a big fat living. Boy, if I could only go back and meet that young man once again, I’d like to knock some sense into him! Several years later after (thankfully) maturing a bit more and coming to my own senses, I too returned as a changed man to my father’s house, figuratively speaking, though I never actually lived there again.
However, there is so much more to the parable of the Prodigal Son than just that of a rebellious teenager gone amuck. There is another way that maybe we all, from Adam right up to today, are just like the Prodigal Son; we all have gone astray to some far off country. “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12). No exceptions; we’re all painted with the same brush. Ultimately, are we not all prodigal sons and daughters? I think we are, the only question is, where in this pilgrimage exactly are we?
The part in the parable in which the younger son asks for his share of the inheritance, I could not relate to, as that just was not a part of my experience, and in truth, it seems that for some reason, I usually tended to quickly read over that part without too much meditation. However, we would do well to think about that a little bit, for it really is quite troubling, especially when read through the eyes of eastern cultural understandings. In that light, Henri Nouwen goes on to quote Kenneth Bailey, who writes:
For over fifteen years I have been asking people of all walks of life from Morocco to India and from Turkey to the Sudan about the implications of a son’s request for his inheritance while the father is still living. The answer has always been emphatically the same … the conversation runs as follows:
Has anyone ever made such a request in your village?
Could anyone ever make such a request?
If anyone ever did, what would happen?
His father would beat him, of course!
The request means – he wants his father to die. (p. 40-41)
I can honestly say that I have never ever thought of it that way. Pretty harsh, wouldn’t you say? Do you suppose that is what the father in the parable was thinking too? If so, then that request from the younger son shows, not just an awful lot of nerve and disrespect, but also the extremes possible when sin is allowed to have the day. I mean, what was he thinking? Was his dad not dying fast enough? Maybe the younger son really did need a time out behind the woodshed with dad and a good old fashioned strap! But that was not the father’s way. The son didn’t get the lashing that he deserved for being disrespectful and wishing his father were dead; instead the father gave him what he wanted, and the son packed up and left his hometown, and his father's house, and moved far away to some distant place.
We’ve all wandered away from our Heavenly Father’s house, taking our share of the inheritance with us, though not perhaps wishing the Father were dead in so many words (and yet remembering that they did kill God the Son), but falling for the devil’s lies enough that the rest of the story may just be a case of semantics. What we really deserve is to be taken behind the woodshed and taught a lesson or two, but Father God, in his great love, just let’s us go, not giving us what our disrespectful and downright sinful ways deserve, but letting us choose our own paths, and hoping that one day we'll return home.
Thank God the story doesn't end there.
But the story doesn’t end there; the younger son returns and is welcomed home with the father’s embrace. I like to see Father God in that light. Yes, we’ve all gone off to our own “distant country,” and squandered our heavenly inheritances in immorality and debauchery, living lives that only prove all the more our need for a Saviour; our need for a Redeemer.
But the story also has an older son, and while he dutifully stayed home with his father, in his own way, he too left and became distant and sinful. He was angry and needed to be welcomed back into the fold. Maybe, as Nouwen observed,
“The parable that Rembrandt painted might well be called ‘The Parable of the Lost Sons.’ Not only did the younger son, who left home to look for freedom and happiness in a distant country, get lost, but the one who stayed home also became a lost man. Exteriorly he did all the things a good son is supposed to do, but, interiorly, he wandered away from his father. He did his duty, worked hard every day, and fulfilled all his obligations but became increasingly unhappy and unfree.” (p.80)
So which of the brothers was closer to the heart of the father?
Did not the father love them both equally? Of course he did. But when the younger son returned from his “distant country,” the eldest son was still stuck out in his own “distant country.” Did the eldest son ever come around, make peace with his father and his lost brother, go into the house and join the party? While we hope that he did, we aren't told, we don’t know; all we can do is speculate.
While we all can conjure up images of the prodigal son easily enough; the child who grew up in a good Christian home, went to Sunday School, was baptized at an early age, and then somewhere in his or her young adult life, perhaps, he or she walked away from the church and from the faith that Mom and Dad raised him or her in. We’ve all witnessed or heard about those stories, although often mentioning them has become somewhat taboo in many church circles.
But the image of the older son we don’t really see as clearly; it’s a little hazier, perhaps, than that of the younger son, and as such is easily missed altogether. As I think about him or her, I see someone steeped in religion, going through the motions of a faith they don’t really necessarily even believe in. Tradition, perhaps, dictates their “walk with God,” though it’s questionable at best if God is even in that thing they so dutifully do Sunday after Sunday. I see someone who is perhaps even a little hypocritical, such as the Pope recently called them, suggesting that they try atheism instead (ouch!). Is this the older brother? He’s going through the motions well enough, but without his own genuine journey back to the Father, it may be that he remains just as lost as his younger brother earlier was.
Which son do you identify more with?
But regardless whether we identify ourselves more with the younger son or the older son, there comes a time when we really need to begin identifying ourselves with the father. As a former pastor, this is perhaps not too far off the calling I sensed back before entering seminary many years ago. It was a calling to welcome home the prodigals, to embrace them with the love of God, not to judge them or look down on them, but to just hold them and say, “Welcome Home.”
Though I am no longer in the pastoral ministry of the institutional church, my “ministry,” and that of everyone identifying with the father in Jesus’ parable, is really the only true ministry of the church today; it is the “Ministry of Reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5: 11-21). That is what the younger son received from the father; that is what the father wanted to desperately give the older son as well, but he wasn’t going to force the matter. When we identify with the father, the “Ministry of Reconciliation” has us saying with the Apostle Paul, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20).
Do you identify more with the younger son or the older son? Regardless who you once were, may you now identify with the father. May the "Ministry of Reconciliation" now be yours.
Something to think about. Peace.
First photo source: Rembrandt copy of "The Return of the Prodigal Son," taken from Henri Noun's book by the same name; Anniversary Edition.
Second photo source: Entitled simply, "Born Again." From a framed poster my wife and I have had hanging in our living room for many years. (2 Corinthians 5:17). Artist unknown.